High-speed Sync is, without a doubt, the feature that sets dedicated small flash apart from all other types of flash. By “dedicated small flash” I mean that if you are a Canonista, then you are shooting with Canon Speedlites, and if you are a Nikonian, then you are shooting with Nikon Speedlights. By “all other types of flash” I mean , 3rd-party speedlights (like Vivitar and Sunpak), monolights (like Alien Bees) and portable/studio strobes (like an Elincrhom Ranger RX or Profoto Pro-8). You have to have a dedicated Speedlite to shoot in High-Speed Sync.
If you’re not familiar with High-Speed Sync, the short version is that it is a special flash mode in which the Speedlite fires an ultra-fast series of flashes rather than one big pop. The pulse is so fast, topping 30,000 cycles per second, that it appears as a regular pop to us. What High-Speed Sync does is turn your Speedlite into a continuous light source so that you can shoot at virtually any shutter speed. When firing in normal mode, the maximum shutter speed on your camera for flash work is in the vicinity of 1/200″. [For more details on the basics of High-Speed Sync, read my article Simple Truths About High-Speed Sync over on PixSylated.] Thanks to High-Speed Sync, I can use super-fast shutter speeds to dim the ambient light (the sun) and selectively light my subject with a Speedlite. In short, High-Speed Sync gives me the ability to create images that I otherwise could not shoot.
So, here’s where I started: mid-afternoon sun coming straight at the camera. The first shot I always take is with my camera in Tv (shutter-priority automatic) at or close to the sync speed for my camera. I want to see how the camera sees the ambient light. There is no flash in the following shot.
Then, out of curiosity, I will typically turn the on-camera Speedlite on in E-TTL mode. In my opinion, the following shot demonstrates how the Canon engineers view the Speedlite’s function: as a really sophisticated fill-flash device that will rescue shots for those who do not know what they are doing. Don’t take this the wrong way—I think that’s a perfectly acceptable goal given that most people never want to open the user manual. I can tell, because you are reading this, that you are among the small minority who truly want to know how to craft light rather than just accept the mediocre. So, let’s press on.
The shot above, in my opinion, shows an on-camera Speedlite at its best. That is not to suggest that I think this is a good photo. If your goal is to make a snapshot of your son pretending that he’s Secret Agent Tony of the Secret Rampage Service, then you might think “o.k. my work here is done.” However, as a Speedliter, you know that our work is about making photos, not taking photos.
The first step, yep, is to use an off-camera Speedlite. If you have a single Speedlite, then I hope you have the extra-long cord that I talk about in this article. If you have two or more Speedlites, I hope one is capable of working as a Master (580EX II, 580EX or 550EX). For this shoot, I started with an ST-E2 Wireless Transmitter on the camera. Unfortunately it would not fire the Slave Speedlite—either because the sun was too bright or because the Slave was just outside the ST-E2’s angle of coverage. Either way, if all I had was an ST-E2 and a single Speedlite, the shoot would have stopped right then and there. [Note: I really do not like the ST-E2. Do not buy one. I will share the many reasons soon.] So, I switched to a 580EX on camera as Master and panned the head so that it pointed at the Slave. I also configured the Master so that it would communicate with the Slave without firing during the actual exposure (a.k.a. I disabled the Master because I did not want any on-camera flash in the shot).
Starting with an off-camera Speedlite in High-Speed Sync:
- activate High-Speed Sync on the Master (push the H-button on the back),
- switch the camera to Manual mode
- dial the shutter speed to just beyond the normal sync speed (the following shot was taken at 1/250″)
- use an aperture that will give me the depth of field that I desire (for this series, I stayed at f/7.1)
- zoom the head of the Slave to 105mm (because I know that I want fall-off)
- shoot a test shot with the Master Speedlite set to E-TTL (because I want to see what happens)
The result is a tad bit more interesting than the non-HSS shot above, but the ambient light from the sun is still much too strong. So, I’ll start dialing the shutter speed down to find a speed that knocks the sunlight back to a level that I like. The first jump, to 1/1600″, is about 3-stops. Then I dial the shutter speed down in whole-stop increments.
In case you are wondering, this is what the camera saw at 1/6400″ without the Speedlite.
Some final thoughts/comments:
- All of the above images are straight from the camera. I am a photographer, not a retoucher. I shoot to make the best images that I can. Taking a normal sync shot and applying a vignette in Photoshop does not deliver the same quality of light that you get when shooting in HSS.
- High-Speed Sync greatly reduces the output power of the Speedlite (because it has to recycle so fast). The drop is about 2.5 stops. I will provide those details in an upcoming article.
- Due to the power drop, you have to move your Speedlite in really close. As you can see above, it’s about 15″ from Tony’s face.
- If you need to squeeze out every drop of power from your Speedlite, switch from E-TTL to Manual mode. The juice that would have gone to the E-TTL pre-flash will then be added to the main flash.
- The zoom setting on the Slave is a key part of getting this look. I will shoot a series at each zoom setting and will share the results in a day or two.
- It’s so important as a Speedliter to understand that how your camera sees is not how you see.
- It’s also important to understand that your viewer sees your photograph and knows nothing about how it was made.
Continued in Part Two.
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